More Science Talk
On the eve of the eve of the United Nations Global Warming Conference in Copenhagen and in the wake of the hacked climate researchers' emails, former Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie discusses his ScientificAmerican.com article "7 Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense"
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on December 3rd, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. Our old friend, John Rennie, has published an article on our Web site entitled "7 Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense," the subject of which is evidence for human interference with Earth's climate continues to accumulate. Couldn't be more timely in the [wake] of recent events and in the days before the United Nations's Global Warming Conference in Copenhagen. I visited John at his apartment in Manhattan.
Steve: Let's spend a minute because people haven't heard you on this podcast for awhile. So, who are you again?
Rennie: I'm John Rennie, currently a contributing editor to Scientific American. I was the editor in chief of Scientific American for oh—15 years or so.
Steve: I remember! And...
Rennie: ...I was your boss, too!
Steve: Yeah, that's right. And you are also teaching now at N.Y.U.
Rennie: That's right. Yes, in the science writing program there in their Graduate School of Journalism.
Steve: John, we are going to talk about one of the biggest controversies in science right now. And of course I'm referring to the question of whether research into the ribosome is worthy of a Nobel Prize in chemistry, as opposed to medicine or physiology.
Rennie: Well, Steve let's bear in mind that it's all chemistry down at that level.
Steve: Well, that's what Thomas Steitz, the Nobel laureate says.
Rennie: Yes! Right.
Steve: I threw a little "red herring" at you there!
Rennie: Well, you have shown me—you scamp!
Steve: We all know what we are really here to talk about and that is your article on the Scientific American Web site entitled, "7 Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense".
Steve: Propitious timing on your part, what with the hacked climate e-mails having been released after you started working on this?
Rennie: Right, actually just days, really almost at the same time I was filing this piece, that announcement came out—that a climate unit in the U.K. that had been hacked or whatever and in whatever ways it led to the e-mails and other files, being removed and then people trying to place that information onto like the real climate data work site in other locations, right.
Steve: And that is included in your article. You obviously worked hard to get that information into the article before publication. I just would like to point out, we're working a little backwards here, but I have been following some of the comments to this piece. There are hundreds; many of them were very angry and there was one that I saw that said, something about, you know, "Why don't you talk about the hacked e-mails?" So people are commenting without even bothering to read it anymore.
Rennie: Well, that seems to unfortunately be really characteristic of a lot of the kinds of arguments that are often used to, sort of, try to demonstrate why it is that all the science pointing toward anthropogenic climate change—global warming that we're experiencing right now—is caused by human activities, most particularly the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. A lot of the people who make those arguments, they are parading certain lines without really knowing what the evidence is on those and that's what we really did, in wanting to write this piece up, was to address at least some of those kinds of arguments and try to make the point that here is why, in fact, we do know some of these things; why those arguments used by these kinds of climate contrarians, why they don't hold up.
Steve: Why don't we go through the seven points? We'll talk about each one briefly and obviously anybody who is interested in more information, the complete article is available for free on the Scientific American Web site. So point number one, again these are "7 answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense"—we should say that the title is sort of a homage to your previous best seller.
Rennie: Yes, my "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" piece from a few years ago.
Steve: Which is still one of the most popular articles on the Web site.
Steve: This is so much nonsense to deal with all the time.
Rennie: That's what is very sad.
Steve: So, claim number 1: Anthropogenic carbon dioxide can't be changing the climate because carbon dioxide is only a trace gas in the atmosphere and the amount produced by humans is dwarfed by the amount from volcanoes and other natural sources. Water vapor is by far the most important greenhouse gas, so changes in carbon dioxide are irrelevant.
Rennie: Right. So there are several different levels of error or misunderstanding of that are bound up just in that set of arguments. First of all, as we pointed out, there is no question that carbon dioxide is really only a trace gas in the atmosphere. It makes up, I think, like maybe, you know, 0.04 percent of the atmosphere. So it is present in very, very small quantities, but that doesn't really mean anything. [It] doesn't take a lot of alcohol in your bloodstream to make you drunk. It doesn't take a lot of arsenic in your bloodstream to make you dead. So, really the question is what is it doing in there? And that's where it becomes much more significant. The idea that is said a lot, that human beings just don't make that much CO2, don't release that much CO2 into the atmosphere, relative to other natural sources, it is itself kind of only half true. That is if you look at the total amount of carbon dioxide that's there in the atmosphere at any one time, it's true, most of that is coming from natural sources, but that means it's coming from things like organic decay and other processes that are going on all the time, and that are routinely offset by other processes in nature that are pulling the carbon dioxide back out of the environment. What we are talking about here though is that the net increase in CO2 that's been going on now for the past, you know, 150 years and more, that is largely driven by human beings and, in fact, human beings produce vastly more carbon dioxide than the volcanoes. So the U.S. geological survey points out that it's like a 130 times as much as volcanoes. Now the argument about water vapor is itself not quite correct. It is true that water vapor is by far the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, but it's not the case that everybody arguing for anthropogenic climate change is saying that water vapor doesn't matter or that they're ignoring that. It's quite the opposite. The water vapor is part of the model. You know, not to bog it down too much, but the idea is that the temperature increase associated with the greenhouse effect of the carbon dioxide tends to—that drives up the temperature, which increases the amount of water that's coming up into the atmosphere because the atmosphere will tend to go toward a fairly, for the most part, a fairly stable level of relative humidity. And that then manages to double what would be the warming effect of the CO2 itself. So, the water vapor is part of the mechanism of CO2-driven global warming.
Steve: So, alright. Here is claim number 2: The alleged hockey stick graph of temperatures over the past 1,600 years has been disproved. It doesn't even acknowledge the existence of a medieval warm period around 1000 A.D. that was hotter than today is. Therefore, global warming is a myth.
Rennie: Okay. Well again there are several different things that are wrong with this set of arguments. One of them is that people who think it is, sort of like, one hockey stick graph are mistaken. In fact, there are dozens of different reconstructions of the climate over the past couple of thousand years that have been used and they pretty much all show something like this: kind of relatively stable temperatures, some up and down over the past couple of thousand years, but then in the past couple of hundred years, a very decided sharp uptick. It does look like there may indeed have been some sort of "medieval warming period" back between say like 900 A.D. and 1300 A.D., but what's never really been clear is whether or not that's just a local phenomenon or whether it's a global phenomenon. If it's a local phenomenon, one that just happened, say, in Europe, then it doesn't really mean much in the context of global warming arguments. And, in fact, a very recent paper that just came out tends to further indicate that, in fact, it was more of a local phenomenon that was driven by identifiable natural factors like variations in solar output. But the more important point with all of this really is, suppose that the hockey stick graphs really were invalid; suppose that they were busted, as some of these kinds of contrarians like to say. It doesn't matter. The original argument about the need for us to watch out for greenhouse-driven global warming emerged long before those hockey stick graphs ever were put together. They came out of contemporary modern studies of recent increases in global temperatures and the concern that pumping all of the CO2 in the atmosphere has to be driving these greenhouse effects. So even if the hockey stick is wrong, you then still have to explain why this is going on, and it doesn't seem as though you can attribute that to, say like, variations in the sun or some other kinds of natural factors.
Steve: It's similar to the argument that even if we didn't have any fossils, you could still prove that evolution happened by genetic, you know, comparative genomics.
Rennie: Yeah, that's right. It seems like then in that level, sort of, evolution is a natural consequence of a, kind of, a system of reproduction that's based on genes with [a] capability of mutation in which you're going to get anything like some kind of natural selection going on.
Steve: Back to the other thing, the global warming then.
Steve: So claim number 3: Global warming stopped a decade ago; the Earth has actually been cooling since then. George Will has been making this comment.
Rennie: Right and George Will is just completely wrong about all of this. This is a very selective use of data; 1998 was the warmest year on record, but—and it does seem like you look at some declining temperatures since then—but remember that's a very small decrease over a very large increase. You know, there's no question—statistically, when you look at the level of variations that you would expect to find and that have been actually seen in the past and the rest of that trend, that doesn't mean that things have suddenly changed. I mean, basically you need a much more pronounced downward shift to certainly indicate that global warming has suddenly stopped and that just doesn't seem to be true. It's sort of like, you know, George Will is a big fan of baseball. It's sort of like, if you had someone who's got a great lifetime batting average and he is suddenly in a slump, well you don't suddenly say, well his career is over. He may be in a slump, maybe his career is over, but maybe it's just evening out a little bit; he is going to come back and hit at his old average again and. in fact, there's plenty of reason to think that we will see some level of, you know, further increase. Now it's also possible that, you know, we may—in fact, there are some scientists who have no doubt whatsoever about the overall phenomenon of current global warming, but who are making the argument that because of certain other things in the dynamics of how climate works, we might actually be in for a period of, you know, 10 years or more where you are not going to see a very pronounced increase in these kind of surface temperatures. So that, you know, is the kind of thing that would naturally fuel this kind of skepticism, contrarianism, and is, in fact, exactly one of the things that Senator James Inhofe pointed to recently when he was crowing about the fact that obviously global warming had ended. But it's just not true, and in fact when—there's a great service that was done by the Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein, in that he took the climate data, the temperature data, didn't label it for it was, and gave it to statisticians and asked them if there were any trends that were showing up in that; and they all concurred that there was no clear indication of a statistically significant decrease or leveling off of the overall increase. We're basically looking at a, sort of, statistical fluctuation.
Steve: So does Inhofe think that the global warming has stopped or that it was the big hoax in the first place—it never happened?
Rennie: Well, this is the great thing, I mean, this is sort of the larger point of what I think is so frustrating for a lot of people in trying to explain the issues of global warming and in having to try to deal with these kinds of things; of why it is, quite frankly, I wanted to refer to this as a, sort of, climate contrarian nonsense. [It's] that a lot of these people, they're not really skeptics, in a sense that they want to sort of dispassionately look at this and they will be led to whatever conclusions that are most strongly indicated by the data. They really already committed themselves to a position. In effect, they don't want to do something in a big way to combat global warming, and so they will use any number of these different sorts of forms of denial. That is, they can start off by saying that there is no global warming; that global warming if it's happening is purely natural, it can't be driven by human beings. If it's driven by human beings, it probably won't actually be harmful; it might actually be beneficial. And then that usually goes to [the] point that, well even if it were harmful, that there's really probably nothing we could do about it, we would be better off just sort of adapting to it. And so you see the senator and a lot of other people who are similarly just fundamentally opposed to acknowledging global warming at a policy level. They will grab onto any of these sorts of arguments. They are not committed to a particular position that's, say, global warming is real, but that maybe it's not as bad as people think.
Steve: Let's move onto claim number 4: The sun or cosmic rays are much more likely to be the real causes of global warming. After all, Mars is warming up, too.
Rennie: Right. So, it's perfectly reasonable, if you're looking at a phenomenon of global warming, to ask, "So are there big natural forces that could be responsible for this?" And the obvious place to start with this is the sun, because probably changes in solar intensity or variations in the Earth's own orbit that would affect the amount of sunlight falling on the Earth are certainly a big part of what have driven ice ages and other big climate changes in the past before human civilization came along. The problem is that, when you actually look at the record on this, it's not really very clear that there is enough going on in the sun over the past couple of hundred years to account for the kind of warming that we're seeing. So it's a perfectly reasonable hypothesis and it's been looked at, and it just doesn't seem to hold up very well. It may well be that some of the warming that we saw, maybe some of a, particularly, say, what we saw in the first half of the 20th century, a lot of that might actually have been more attributable to the sun then to the level of carbon dioxide. But most of the temperature increase that we've been seeing has been in the last half of the 20th century, and there's no way you can attribute that to what's going on with the sun. This argument that maybe its cosmic rays is a relatively new idea, and again it's a perfectly reasonable hypothesis because cosmic rays can be involved in helping to generate clouds that would then have the effect of helping to cool off the Earth. And in effect over the past half century or so, the sun, although its luminosity hasn't changed very much, it has been very magnetically active and that would have the effect of decreasing the amount of cosmic rays, which would have the effect then of, if this is an active phenomenon, decreasing the amount of clouds and increasing the amount of sunlight that's warming up the Earth. But so far it just doesn't seem to be a very compelling case for that. You're not seeing the kinds of trends in the actual measured increase in cosmic rays that would have to been taking place. You aren't also seeing some of the phenomena of the patterns of warming that are going on; it doesn't seem to correspond to what could have, which we would expect by associating it with the cosmic rays. So it's again a perfectly reasonable hypothesis and one that will continue to be looked at, but at the moment it's very hard to be able to say why that would be a more compelling case than the one for the greenhouse gases of all the increase in carbon dioxide. Because we have 35 percent more CO2 in the atmosphere than we did back early in the 19th century—that's a huge increase, it's got to be having a greenhouse effect unless you can figure out some way [to explain] why it wouldn't be and that just doesn't seem to be clearly the case.
Steve: And the Mars issue—because Mars is warmer also?
Rennie: Right. Well, you know, what's very funny is that people who are not persuaded by, you know, by all kinds of different measurements that the Earth is actually warming up, somehow can seize on a much smaller data set associated with Mars and be convinced. "Oh look! Global warming is going on there." The evidence of Mars [warming] is frankly a lot spottier. You're dealing with a much smaller data set and it may be that some of the warming that you're looking at there is actually the effect of some big dust storms that were going across the Martian surface that changed the reflectance off the planet's surface and that therefore had the effect of affecting the surface temperatures there. It's just, you know, it's possible for other planets to be warming up for completely different reasons.
Steve: Well, let's not forget Mars has an anorexic little atmosphere.
Rennie: Yeah, that's right. I mean, the other thing is that some of these people pointed the idea that, well, Pluto has also been warming up. Well, Pluto, you know, there again, even spottier indications that Pluto is warming up. Bear in mind some of the reasons why Pluto was warming up was, what was happening, well it was moving away from the sun and getting less solar radiance that way. So quite frankly, the sun is not driving that solar warming either.
Steve: We are talking about the former planet, Pluto.
Rennie: Yes, that's right.
Steve: Just wanted to make sure we weren't [infringing]...
Rennie: Not the Disney dog.
Steve: Exactly, I don't want to get in trouble with the Disney people.
Steve: All right. Claim number 5: Climatologists conspire—you know, we are really going to get into it now—to hide the truth about global warming by locking away their data. Their so-called consensus on global warming is scientifically irrelevant because science isn't settled by popularity.
Rennie: Okay. So this one is particularly timely in the [light] of the leak of these ...
Steve: Not a leak....
Rennie: The theft! Is that what you're going for?
Steve: There you go.
Steve: [They were] stolen; the e-mails were stolen.
Rennie: Well, in any—however one describes it, this is certainly what it is being much debated at the moment because people are looking at some of those , the emails and the language [that's] used, and they are pointing to various indications of, "Gee, did some of the other scientists there associated with this climate research group, were some of them involved in things that would have involved tampering with the data or trying to hide—if so unlawfully—some kinds of request for information and so forth?" And look all of that deserves to be investigated where there is wrong doing on that, it absolutely deserves to be criticized in the harshest possible terms. But quite frankly again, it's not like the case for global warming all hinges off of things that are coming out of that one research unit. You're looking at stuff that's happening all over the world. Now also, you know, bear in mind that the indications that, you know, CO2 has an effect on the climate because of its greenhouse effect, that involves [a] huge number of different papers and scientists going all the way back to, you know, John Tyndall in the early 19th century.
Steve: Our first global warming article in Scientific American related to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was...
Rennie: I think, it was July 1959?
Steve: Correct. Over 50 years ago. We've been tracking this for that long.
Rennie: Right, people have been worried about this for a very long time.
Steve: Svante Arrhenius, the first Nobel Laureate in chemistry...
Steve: ...he was worried about this over 100 years ago.
Rennie: Right. He calculated that the increase in CO2 would be, you know, would cause this kind of increase in global warming. So, you know, this is not a new idea that 's , you know, the environmentalists have just dreamt up in the past few decades. You know, I may be making, sort of, fun of the idea of this being, the sort of, the kind of [DaVinci Code-Dan-Brown-like giant Freemasons conspiracy,] and you know, obviously it would be impossible for it to be something like that. A more reasonable argument is that,
"Well okay it's not that kind of conspiracy, but you've got huge numbers of scientists who all have a, you know, their own vested interests in trying to push an agenda like this because it brings them more money or something like that." It's like, you know, at some level, maybe? You know, you certainly have to watch out for it, I think, you know, scientists are as humans as anybody else, so I mean, I think it would be hard to imagine that you could point to any group of scientists and not find some level of malfeasance in there someplace, as in any number of other professions. But the fact is that, you know, you don't want to make this about the people. It's about the work itself, and this is where it comes down the question of the consensus. Yes, science isn't settled on a popularity contest, but this isn't about whether or not even the scientists necessarily all agree about this; it's the fact that you've got a gigantic amount of scientific [information], a huge number of papers and databases that all point toward the realities of CO2-driven global warming. And that's what you know, that's the consensus that has to be defeated, not any sort of petitions or reports coming from IPCC or anything else. Those represent that information and the kinds of findings that you find in that, but you know, quite frankly people who think that there is like one amazing silver bullet of a climate contrarian kind of paper that's going to come out, that you're going to disprove the hockey stick graph and suddenly the whole case for global warming falls apart—that's crazy.
Steve: Which relates to claim number 6 (you touched on it a little bit actually): Climatologists have a vested interest in raising the alarm because it brings them money and prestige.
Rennie: Right, you know, I mean, if you look at the amount of funding that's gone on over, sort of, the recent era of global climate concern, quite frankly the amount of money going to the researchers, at least in terms of the U.S. budgets has not increased all that much. Once you adjust for inflation and like it, it basically comes out as only little bit higher, it's almost have been flat. So, they're quite frankly not getting that much money. There are frankly a lot of other people involved in industry who are getting a lot more money coming out of this, which is ironic because the industry as a group which has probably been, you know, more responsible for trying to resist a lot of the efforts that would be involved in responding to global warming. You know, it's just hard to imagine that they would be that well motivated by this. Quite frankly at a career level, [a] climatologist would be able to make his reputation much faster by being able to stand up and able to clearly show why it was that all the concerns about global warming are dead wrong than by being part of the much larger pack of climatologists who are all in agreement that it's going on.
Steve: I'm reminded of the Haldane quote about, you know, "What would prove to you,"—[and] he was talking about evolution— [he] was asked "What would prove to you that evolution, as we understand it, is either all wrong or didn't happen at all?" And he famously replied, "A fossil rabbit in the pre-Cambrian." So what would prove to you, John Rennie, that it's all been wrong and it's a hoax?
Rennie: Sure. Because listen, I'm not somebody who started off absolutely convinced of the reality of global warming. I mean, I think, I was very skeptical about sort of some of the concerns when they first came out too. The evidence accumulated, and I've been driven to my current view of the whole situation. But absolutely. Look it wouldn't be just one thing, but there are several things that together would have a very effective way of being able to certainly shake all of my confidence on this. If it was very clear that, first of all, that you could get a very clear set of data measurements or temperature measurements, currently and maybe going back, even just over the past century or so, that clearly indicated that you were not, in fact, getting a real global warming that has been going on; that there's some sort of systemic error in all of those measurements or a number of systemic errors that just show that there hadn't been global warming, that would clearly be one thing that would [dis]prove it right there.
Steve: The elucidation of a mechanism by which the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does not raise temperature.
Rennie: That's right and clear indications that that mechanism seemed like it was going on; absolutely, that's the kind of thing that would clearly help to offset that major part of that part of the argument. I mean, those are things that could be out there that could be driven. But you can't just make sort of general hand waving arguments that say things like, "All climate models are nonsense; we can't trust them." Climate models summarize everything that we think we understand about what goes into climate at the moment. We do understand a number of things that go into climate at the moment. We don't know everything, but the climate models represent a summary of that, in which you try to quantitatively put it together. Now it may be wrong, but you can't just dismiss all of that information and then say, "Well, we just don't, you know, there are a lot of other factors we don't know about."—unless you can start to point to why it is that they all have to be going the other way. You know, this is the thing about the uncertainty of a climate [science]—uncertainty cuts both ways. Maybe we're all wrong about this, about what's going on, maybe the concerns about global warming are greatly overstated. But by that same token, maybe we are vastly understating them, may be we're actually staring at way worse global warming that's coming up. This is not a reason to just sort of bury our head in the sands and ignore that.
Steve: And it raises the question of what evidence, if any, would convince a climate contrarian that anthropogenic global warming was real. And if there's nothing that could change your mind, well you know, then it's not worth having this conversation in the first place.
Steve: Let's move onto point number 7. Technological fixes, such as inventing energy sources that don't produce carbon dioxide or geoengineering the climate, would be more affordable, prudent ways to address climate change than reducing our carbon footprint.
Rennie: Right. Okay, so here we're getting into the issue of more policy and less one of the actual science. And therefore, you know, in the area of policy, look, now the answers [of] what make the best recommendations are less clear-cut, because it's sort of questionable, you know, what are the costs and what kind of risks do you want to associate with all of this. The problem with some of the people first of all, who sometimes say, well, you know, rather than just trying to regulate CO2 better and try to address climate change that way, we should really just be putting all of our money into developing better technologies. They say that like these are two completely contrary, different approaches. The whole point of imposing regulations that would tend to restrict CO2 is to create incentives for people to then develop more technologies. I mean, I don't think anybody is opposed to funding more technological development or encouraging more technological development in the private sector that would help to address things that way. But when—just sort of cavalierly assuming that technology will somehow manage to solve all of [these] problems on its own seems really, really reckless, because it were, quite frankly we've been noticing the problems of global warming for a while now anyway, and where are the great solutions? Even if you developed a great solution technologically, it takes time to deploy it, and all the time that you have all the sort of, extra CO2 in the atmosphere, tending to boost the global warming that's going on. All the time that's going on you are worsening the problem; you are increasing whatever it is that your great technological fix down line is going to have to deal with. [And] you're going to be incurring a certain number of irreparable losses along the way to the environment. Now maybe it is worth [it to] you to do that; maybe you don't care what happens; maybe, you know, [that's] the political policy consensus that you want to arrive to. You don't care if the sea level increases, you don't care if the growth patterns for different areas of agriculture all change. Okay, fine. If you're willing to bear the costs of that, that's fine, but a lot of the analyses suggest that that's a bad bargain for us. And you know, when you're looking to something like the, kind of, the big geo-engineering fixes that are sometimes proposed, you know, the idea of, well, let's, instead of just continuing to mess with the environment accidentally, the way we have been, let's go out there and do it deliberately; let's, you know, really do this in a big, focused way and let's try to, you know, clean up our own mess that way. Again, it's not like it's fundamentally an unreasonable thing of thinking to do and maybe in principal it's even, you know, on paper, it might be a more affordable way of dealing with this. But it's also very, very risky. You know, if you are doing things, some of the kind of geoengineering approaches that would be involved in—for example, you know, people have discussed everything from like, you know, putting giant reflectors into space to try to reduce the amount of sunlight falling on the Earth; that's one, you know, kind of obviously literally pie in the sky approach to be able to do something like that. If you do that, if you're not offsetting that CO2 that's going on, it's still building up. So, you know, at that point, you own the climate, and if your system ever breaks down, you are going to see that rebound warming happening very, very fast after that. There are also a lot of consequences associated with these kinds of things. If you want to pump more kinds of sulfur compounds into the air in the interest of creating more clouds, to reflect away the sunlight, that's probably very doable, but there's probably a very good risk associated with that of, like, more acid rain and a lot of other problems that would come from that. You know, if you are not reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, there are going to be big consequences: the acidification of the oceans, different other kinds of effects on plant life and so forth. So, you know, it seems like, you know, listen, we get into a desperate last [ditch] situation, maybe we have to do those things. And so I think it would certainly be worth continuing to investigate those; about, you know, how they might work and what the pros and cons of them might be. That's only reasonable to be looking at a lot of that stuff, given the magnitude of what some of these problems might be. But that's not an argument for ignoring what we might be able to achieve in a regulatory fashion now.
Steve: I bring up the idea of population control as a global warming break, but I don't want Rush Limbaugh to recommend that I kill myself, which is what he did to Andy Revkin of The New York Times. Now we're off really the science of it and we've veered into policy. And, you know, we fight this fight so much and quite frankly, you know, I'm kind of tired.
Rennie: Well, it's sort of understandable. I mean, I think it's depressing to see that we're still, you know, that not withstanding the amount of scientific evidence, very strong scientific evidence that has continued to accumulate, that continues to point to this being a serious problem; that there is still this level of political and social, cultural pushback that comes from it. I mean, the sad fact is that at certain level politically, you know, you can make the argument that the people trying to make the case for anthropogenic global warming happening, you know, we're losing out at that level. I mean, I think the latest polls suggest that [the] American public seems less concerned about global warming now than it did a couple of years ago. Which tends to mean that unfortunately a lot of the kind of nonsensical arguments that I was targeting here, that they actually have taken root in a lot of the population; basically lot of people have the wool pulled over their eyes. That doesn't mean though that we don't still have a real responsibility to go out there and have to try to educate people about what seems to be the best science at all times.
Steve: The thing that always amazes me about this issue is, even if there is no global warming, why wouldn't you want to develop all these alternative energy sources so that you're not—this is the Thomas Friedman argument, not sending your treasure to [petro-]dictators and you're inventing and developing a robust new technology and the businesses associated with it here in the United States.
Rennie: Right. Well, and I think that is a good argument. I think the rebuttal that would be raised to it by a lot of these people on the other side of this is that, "Well that sounds well and good, but given that there are considerable costs associated with trying to push that kind of development aggressively now," they would make the argument that you know, "maybe it's just not worth it to spend that much. Over time, we will get there anyway, why spend additional billions, trillions of dollars maybe, to that end." Now this is where the question of, you know, are the costs that they're raising inflated? There are certainly, you know, plenty of arguments that a lot of these kinds of transitions will actually help to create jobs or will help to pay for themselves in a lot of different ways too. But again that's sort of academic. Unfortunately, the timeline of like what looks like is happening with global warming is, you have to grapple with this problem right now. You have to start to address it yesterday to start to try to head off some of the most serious repercussions. You know and again listen, it's perfectly reasonable for the world to take the position that we're just not going to do anything about global warming; we're just going to keep on doing what we're doing because it's lucrative and, you know, we will mop up the damage later on. And then in certain sectors that sounds great. Except that I'm pretty sure that there are people in the Maldives Islands along the coasts of Bangladesh and various other farmers in parts of the world who are suddenly discovering that according to the projections that suddenly they're not going to be getting the kind of rainfall they used to—you're looking at massive social disruptions. There are people who come out on the losing end of that argument and, you know, I think they are very, very concerned of the idea that too many parts of the rich industrialized world seem inclined to, sort of, let that coast because they don't seem to be the ones who would be paying the biggest part of those prices.
Steve: Flooded coast!
Steve: Well there you have it. We usually do our quiz feature called TOTALL....... Y BOGUS at the end of the episode; actually, I'm sure some of the climate change deniers who have been hurling angry missives our way would say that this entire program has been TOTALL....... Y BOGUS, but as this episode is already running long and in the interests of publishing it as soon possible, we'll end here. But look for an addition to this episode that will be posted on December 4th, a special TOTALL....... Y BOGUS–only episode to fill all your bogocity needs. So that'll be it for this episode of Science Talk. You can follow us on Twitter as SciAm—S-C-I-A-M—and my personal tweets as Steve Mirsky, and check out www.ScientificAmerican.com for the latest science news and a really lovely slide show of images of the Earth taken from space. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American. I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.